'Farmer John' works to help animal ag and ag ed in Haiti
John Draxton's butcher shop helps support a Haitian-run project that teaches agriculture throughout Haiti.
ORISKA, N.D. — It was 18 years ago in Haiti when John Draxton broke one of the rules of his mission trip.
“They tell you not to give your number out, not to give your email out, because they’re going to be calling you and wanting money and stuff,” he explains.
But the decision to give some money and his contact information to a translator ended up changing Draxton’s life, and he is hopeful it could end up changing Haitian agriculture.
The translator, Josue Cesar, studied agronomy at the University of Haiti, then got a master's degree in microfinance in Brussels, Belgium, and had a job offer in Canada.
But when Cesar narrowly escaped death during the January 2010 earthquake that devastated his country, he wanted to stay and help his own people.
Draxton agreed to help Cesar start the International Farmers Organization for Sustainable Development — IFOSuD. And Draxton formed Friends of IFOSuD to raise money in the U.S. to support the nonprofit.
But when Hurricane Matthew devastated some IFOSuD communities, Draxton was compelled to do more.
“I believe in it enough to sell everything I had, sell my business and go to Haiti to try to push it harder to make it work,” he says.
In Haiti, Draxton started Farmer John’s to serve as an example of sustainable agriculture and support IFOSuD.
What that’s become — a butcher shop — isn’t what he planned. But the success he’s seen with the venture has him and IFOSuD looking to start a new organization to teach agriculture skills to Haitian children and give them the tools to feed their own country.
Draxton grew up in Northwood, N.D., and had cattle as a young adult.
But in the years between meeting Cesar and the beginning of IFOSuD, Draxton started a trucking company in Williston, N.D., during the height of western North Dakota's oil boom. Had he still had cattle when Cesar asked him to help start IFOSuD, he doubts he would have gotten involved in IFOSuD.
But because the timing was right, he was able to see how IFOSud could help communities. First, IFOSuD’s spiritual advisers do “orality training” — teaching the largely illiterate farmers to memorize and recite Bible stories in Creole, rather than in the French often spoken in their churches that they don’t necessarily understand. They work to dispel beliefs in voodoo, which has made some farmers believe their crops failed due to curses rather than poor agronomic practices.
After a few months of spiritual discipleship, IFOSuD’s agronomists teach principles in farming, ranching and agribusiness. Then, individuals who have stuck with the training receive $1,000 loans to move their farm, livestock operation or small business forward. Draxton says the program has seen about 85% loan repayment.
Wade Bruns, an Oriska, N.D., corn and soybean farmer and Friends of IFOSuD board member, says IFOSuD’s work sounds “almost too good to be true,” but he’s visited Haiti to see it for himself.
The organization, he explains, operates efficiently and, unlike many organizations, doesn’t do much in the way of hand-outs. Instead, it provides education, support and loans.
Many missions and humanitarian organizations provide free things or do work for the people of Haiti, Draxton explains. Such efforts, while well-meaning, don’t provide lasting change. Instead, they sometimes provide seeds for jealousy and competition among people.
“That’s the night and day difference” of IFOSuD, Bruns says.
The Friends of IFOSuD board is made of North Dakotans, largely farmers and ranchers. Bruns says the board’s job is to raise money for IFOSuD and to “light a fire of passion for what’s happening there in Haiti.”
When he moved to Haiti, Draxton’s first plan was to go back to the cattle business.
“I’m not a missionary, I’m not a pastor, I didn’t know what I was. I just said, all I know how to do is fatten cattle. It’s all I’ve ever done,” he says.
So he bought five young bulls in Haiti. He castrated them, put them in a small feedlot and fed them silage made of sugarcane, corn stalks and molasses. When they were fat, he was surprised to learn there wasn’t a butcher shop to slaughter them so he could sell the meat to support IFOSuD.
But another mission, Love a Child, had built a small, clean, air conditioned building where people could butcher their animals. He took his steers there and butchered them. And another missionary, who had been an agriculture teacher and FFA adviser in West Virginia, convinced him to open a butcher shop.
Clean meat, Draxton explains, is a scarcity in Haiti. Grocery stores may sell the meat of animals found in the street.
Draxton shipped equipment from the U.S. to start Farmer John’s. The business now butchers beef, goats, pigs and chickens and sells fish from another organization. Draxton says several farmers raise pigs in a similar manner to how “pasture pigs” are raised in the U.S. The cattle are much different, but Haitians have learned Farmer John’s buys the fattest cattle. They line up daily to try to sell to him.
“We don’t want an 8-year-old bull,” Draxton says.
“I don’t buy the pigs from the street eating the garbage, and I don’t buy the cows eating the garbage in the street in Port-au-Prince,” he says.
Draxton hired Stephanie Andressos, a native of Haiti who studied agriculture in Costa Rica and interned in California, to manage Farmer John’s. She explains that Haitians have grown accustomed to buying meat that has been in the heat and covered in flies.
“But here in the butcher shop, we’re making a difference by showing people that meat isn’t supposed to be managed like that,” she says.
The business has had no trouble finding customers, selling to missionaries as well as grocery stores and hotels like Marriott. Farmer John’s proceeds have funded some small IFOSuD projects, but Draxton sees big things in the future. He’s building a chicken processing facility that could reduce the amount of foreign meat that comes into Haiti. And he wants to build a cannery so that canned meat could be sold to people without refrigeration.
Future Farmers of Haiti
Draxton says IFOSuD’s next project will set up an agriculture education program in Haiti, which they’re calling Future Farmers of Haiti. The program will be in the schools, and organizers want it to resemble FFA in the U.S. However, Draxton says most Haitian students drop out after sixth grade, so the program will focus on fourth through seventh graders.
Organizers are translating U.S. ag education curriculum and adjusting it for younger students. Draxton says they want students to do projects, like growing vegetables. Then, Farmer John’s will help market the produce, and schools will be able to use the money on things like animal protein to feed students and to fund FFH. The program also will have a reforestation component.
“If we can impact the children and change their hearts, there can be a big impact,” Draxton says.
Draxton believes the program will succeed where others have failed by tying participation to school classes and by making it somewhat self-supporting.
Seeing a future within the unrest
Draxton continues to work toward bringing new cattle genetics to Haiti and expanding Farmer John’s. But the reality can’t be ignored. Haiti has been in political upheaval, leading to riots and road blocks. Twice, Draxton has moved his wife, Katy, and their six children to Haiti only to evacuate them back to North Dakota when conditions became unsettled. While Draxton returns to Haiti for months at a time, Katy and the children are living in Northwood.
While Draxton feels safe at the butcher shop and supported by the community, he has been shot at and he’s been evacuated by helicopter. He’s seen roadblocks that for months kept his staff from making deliveries. Sales dropped about 70% in September, October and November when many missionaries pulled out of the country. But sales have increased again, and he says he feels like Farmer John’s can make a difference.
“I know without a doubt I’m supposed to be there, all of these connections coming together with these certain organizations and people and this exciting new project” to start Future Farmers of Haiti, he says.
Plus, he sees his business being sustainably and capably run by the staff he has hired, even without him. Draxton employs 15 people at the Farmer John’s butcher shop and 18 through a related restaurant that features all-you-can-eat ribs. The planned chicken plant and cannery will employ even more. Draxton uses local labor for his building projects. And, the businesses have given people with livestock a market for their animals.
Draxton touts the work of his manager, Andressos. She says she’s proud to have gotten an education and returned to work at Farmer John’s.
“I believe if we have the right assets and if we have the right people, the right human resources, we can do big stuff in Haiti. And then we can have a butcher shop like that. And then we don’t have to be importing stuff from other countries all the time,” she says. “I hope I can make it be successful.”
(The work of Riley Slivka of Agristudios contributed to this report.)